Voices of Niagara: Paul Dyster, Mayor of Niagara Falls, New York

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Mayor Paul Dyster interviewed in April 2018 at City Hall, Niagara Falls, New York  © Alan Gignoux

In a city that was once an industrial power, that’s lost half of its population over the course of the last 50 or 60 years, economic development is always going to be a great challenge.  There’s a certain irony in that since this was one of the first areas in North America to industrialise at the end of the 19th century.

The physical fact of the Falls was always going to generate visitation because it’s spectacular.  But the sheer physical energy of the Falls, the water going over a cliff, was eventually going to be harnessed by somebody, and, in fact, was harnessed in various ways starting with mechanical power for grain grinding even before electricity was invented.

So there’s been industrialisation here almost from the same time that people started coming to look at the Falls, to paint the Falls and to otherwise enjoy the natural environment.

I think one of the major milestones was in the early 1970s when you had the incident at Love Canal, which was linked to some very severe health problems and caused the evacuation of a whole neighbourhood of the city of Niagara Falls.  This was not just a national, but a global story.  On one level, it was a catastrophe.  On the other hand, it gives us the opportunity to claim that the modern environmental movement was really born here at Niagara Falls.

So, where do we go from there?  I guess that’s the question.

There was a study that was done by our tourism promotion agency asking people what they saw as differences comparing Niagara Falls, New York, to Niagara Falls, Ontario.  Niagara Falls, Ontario, has had much more commercial development or glitzy tourism development for a number of years, and I think it’s given them an advantage in this friendly competition that we have for visitors.

Our research turned up an interesting result, and that is that people felt that Niagara Falls, New York, was the greener side – not necessarily the less developed side, but the greener side: the side with the more extensive park system, the side with greater opportunity to get close to the natural resource.

And a number of people preferred that Niagara Falls to the other, and the younger you were, the more likely you were to prefer the greener version.  So we felt that that was something very positive in light of some of the policy initiatives that we’ve undertaken to try to make this a cleaner, greener place.

A fellow named Robert Moses, who was a development czar in New York State at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, thought it was a good idea to put a limited access expressway all along the waterfront of Niagara Falls, occupying some of the most important real estate in the whole city for a period of 40 or 50 years.

We’re in the process now of removing the Robert Moses Parkway, creating an expanded park, the largest expansion of the park since it was created in 1885, and hopefully restoring  not just the physical, but the psychological connection of the people to the river that, after all, gives our city its name.

Niagara Falls is like a broad-based triangle with the Falls at its apex.  Until recently, you had the Robert Moses Parkway on two sides of the triangle, cutting you off from the river.  On the upstream side the parkway’s gone, and we’re going to cut the ribbon very shortly on a new park called Riverway.  That’s going to expand the park from the brink of the Falls upstream to Daly Boulevard.  And later this year, we’re starting work on a project that’s going to remove the parkway from the Falls downstream along the beautiful Niagara Gorge to meet up with Whirlpool State Park and De Veaux Woods.  So we’re reconnecting the city to the waterfront.

This will be on the cover of National Geographic when we get this done, because millions and millions of people from around the world visit here. They care about the place, and our doing a better job not just to protect, but to enhance the environment here is going to be very noteworthy.

We are building our tourism economy.  It is planned to be, and in reality on the ground it is turning out to be, the most lucrative area for investment and job creation for the city moving forward.

But not everyone wants to work in the tourism industry, so we have to have a more diversified economy than just tourism.  What we are looking to do is to create industries here that are cleaner, greener industries, that are going to be sustainable, and that have both a reality and an image that is compatible with this idea of Niagara Falls as an icon of the natural environment.

So, for example, a few years ago, a Quebec-based company invested almost $0.5 billion to create one of the world’s most modern paper mills here in Niagara Falls.  The paper mill is the length of three football fields.  It’s absolutely massive, extraordinarily high-tech.  And not a single tree is cut down in order to feed this massive paper mill because it manufactures recyclable cardboard shipping boxes, out of recycled cardboard.

We think this is the type of industry that people like Nikola Tesla would’ve been very proud to have seen at Niagara Falls.  Something that is taking advantage of electricity that’s available here from hydropower, a very, very green form of power, to do something that is itself good for the environment.

So this is the type of thing that we’re looking for going forward.  We still want to be an industrial power, but we want to be a green industrial power.

The idea of turning people to the concept that economics and the environment are not incompatible – I think that we’ve been able to demonstrate to people that the places in the world that do the best job taking care of the environment are also the most prosperous. That has required a major psychological shift here in Niagara Falls, but I think we’re getting there.  So that if we’re making efforts to clean up our industries, people don’t see it as an attack on job creation now.  They see it as creating a more sustainable base for economic development.

This is an extract.  The full interview will shortly be available on You Tube.

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